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5G deployments see rapid rise. But where’s the payback?

Furthermore, a total of 336 network operators are investing in 5G in 118 countries, up 25 per cent during the same period, pursuing activities ranging from studies, technology trials, pilot networks, commercial network deployments and commercial service launches. 

The research also examined the choice of spectrum used in 5G network deployment, with over 50 operators (nearly 90 per cent) using sub-6GHz bands for commercial 5G services currently, mostly in the 3.4–3.8 GHz range, with just four operators using mmWave bands.

While the figures reflect a rapid increase in 5G deployments, there is of course still much debate to be had around how operators are going to make money from 5G networks. For example, RMA recently attended Fokus Fuseco and the Voice and Advanced Communications Summit where a show of hands revealed that operators don't think there's any real additional revenue to be gained from 5G bundles. There may be some uptick from add-ons, but that's new territory, and unproven as a business model.

More likely, these deployments are paving the way for future evolution to support new classes of services from B2B partners – particularly when Non-standalone (NSA) 5G is available (which could be in service by 2021).

But perhaps the biggest question mark against commercial 5G deployments is that of coverage. How extensive is coverage in each city? It's one thing for an operator to say that they have deployed 5G in six (or 19) cities, for example, but is the coverage concentrated in a few areas or is it sufficiently extensive to say that a city is completely covered?

We suspect not – a single cell site would enable an operator to declare coverage. So, what happens when a new 5G customer moves from a 5G area to a non-5G area? How is their experience maintained? That question currently remains unanswered and is important to consider when thinking about user experience and expectations.

Yes, the advances been made are impressive and welcome, but for some time there have been question marks and caveats regarding how extensive 5G coverage will be, how handoff to non-5G networks will affect user experience, and ultimately how operators are going to create successful business models around 5G and what new use cases can we expect? These questions remain.